Magical Middle Earth: skiing in Queenstown

Earlier this month I spent a long weekend in Queenstown, gliding through snowcapped mountains, necking mulled wines and having my mind well and truly blown by the majesty of this Narnia-like paradise.

It’s actually the second time I’ve visited Queenstown, the first being a week last summer, and I don’t know why its taken me so long to write about it. It’s by far one of the most dazzling places I’ve ever seen, and a dusting of powder takes it to another level.

It’s also the first time I’ve felt remotely festive since I’ve been in New Zealand (Christmas last year was spent on the beach beneath the glistening sun), which is impressive given that its August!

The ride in

If you’re flying into Queenstown from the north, book a window seat on the left hand side of the plane for the most astonishing ride you’ll ever experience. The views across the Southern Alps is like something from a fantasy film.

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From the Tasman Sea to as far as the eye can witness are endless grand mountains, turquoise lakes and meandering rivers. You also get a birds eye view of the magnificent Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. If you want to be embraced by mother nature, you’ve come to the right place. And all this before you’ve even landed!

Now onto the more practical stuff…

Gearing up

I rented my skis, poles, a helmet and boots from Snow Rental in town. The staff were pretty helpful and it was cheaper to pre-pay online and then get fitted once I arrived. You’ll need to know your weight/height so they can fit you with the right skis and boots so check this before you leave home. They also gave me the option of swapping them if they were uncomfortable after the first day.

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You can pick up your ski passes from the Snow Centre in Downtown Queenstown when you arrive – this is also where the transfer bus collects you to take you up the mountains. Be prepared for slow queues in this place! You’ll need to give them a $10 deposit for your ski pass which you can cash up at the end of your trip.

Transport

There were ten of us on the trip so we hired a couple of cars between us which worked out to be the same price as paying for the transfer bus, but was heaps more convenient.

We arrived at the mountain around 8.30am and got into the first car park – get there any later and it’s likely that you’ll be in the overflow car park catching transfer buses to the slopes. Not ideal when you’re trying to walk on icy terrain in ski boots, lugging all your gear!

Day 1: Coronet Peak

Coronet Peak is about 30 minutes drive from Queenstown, making it the closest of all the mountains. It doesn’t get as much snowfall as some of the other mountains, which can mean you don’t always get a soft landing if you fall (it also goes by the nickname ‘Concrete Peak’).

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We chose to night ski on our first day so headed up the mountain at 12pm, slighty hungover after the first nights escapades in Queenstown. It gets very cold once the sun goes down (especially on those chairlifts), but the atmosphere is pretty good, with a big fire pit outside the restaurant to de-frost your fingers, and DJs blasting out music whilst you’re winding down the slopes. I didn’t do much skiing in the evening but it was just as fun warming myself up with an après-ski mulled wine and good company.

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I was nervous about getting back on the skis after only going a few times last year and mainly doing lessons. Most of the crew disappeared up to the top of the mountain on their snowboards so I headed over to the beginners area to recreate Bambi on ice. Much to my delight, I wasn’t utterly terrible, so I headed up the beginners chairlift to tackle some longer runs.

Beginner trails:  The Meadows Chair is a good place to start once you’ve had a few lessons and know the basics. The Big Easy trail isn’t daunting but has some steep inclines so you can practice controlling your speed, and get out of your wedge and into some parallel skiing (the dream for us beginners!).

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Feeling confident in my new found abilities on the snow, I attempted a blue run in the afternoon which didn’t go quite as I had imagined it… The M1 trail is a straight run that you reach by turning left off Meadows Chair. After picking up way more speed than was necessary and forgetting how to use my breaks, I face planted the snow.

Luckily for me, those Kiwi folk are pretty damn charitable and two wonderful ladies picked me up under each arm and set me back on my way, racing down the mountain. Turns out it was super icy and therefore was not the best conditions to test myself on the intermediate slopes. Oh well…onwards and upwards!

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Overall the weather was good, the views from the ski field over Queenstown’s lake and mountains was humbling, and the day ended with a late night trip to FergBurger, of course.

Day 2 & 3: The Remarkables

The Remarkables are about 45 minutes outside of Queenstown, with views en route that are simply magical and transport you straight into Middle Earth. The mountain roads were pretty icy so we had to zig zag our way up – not for the fainthearted.

Before my trip I’d spoken to a few people about where was best to ski in Queenstown and most preferred the Remarks to Coronet Peak. It certainly didn’t disappoint. It had been blessed with fresh dumps of snow in the weeks leading up to our trip, turning it into a winter playground. We arrived early to blue skies, the sun beaming down on us and that unbeatable fresh mountain air.

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Beginners trails: The Remarks is the ideal spot for beginners, with access to wide, open trails from three chairlifts. Alta Chair takes you down a green run which is a good place to work on your progression to the intermediate trails.

Once you’ve nailed that, ski down from the top of Alta Chair, stop about halfway down and hop on the Sugar Bowl Chair, which leads you up to another beginners area – Castaway.

This run sits alongside a freestyle park with jumps and obstacles for the more daring among us. There was a kids freestyle competition being held on one of the days we were there. We watched, in awe, from the chairlift as tiny kids did insane flips and tricks with absolutely no fear.

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The Castaway trail was awesome and is a much longer beginner run than the Alta Chair. After picking up a few tips on how to parallel ski, I was having a ball cruising my way down the mountain, controlling my turns. It was time to take things up a notch and tackle those intermediate runs…

I took Matt along for some moral support and rode the Curvy Basin Chair to the top of the mountain, to attempt the Curvy B run. Turns out those blue runs look much steeper once you get to the top, and I spent a lot of it on my back in the snow trying to stand up on my skis, which were determined to escape from my boots and disappear down the mountain.

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It took a couple more attempts on that run, but by some miracle I managed to get down without falling over or breaking anything. Feeling elated, I skied directly into the Ice Bar to celebrate with a hot cup of mulled wine with the gang. Speaking of which, don’t leave the Remarks without visiting this spot for THE MOST unbelievable view of any bar on earth. Not exaggerating.

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A few tips…

  • If you’re heading up with a backpack, just leave it outside along the wall with the other hundreds of bags. The lockers will fill up quickly, plus you have to pay for them. Obviously don’t leave anything valuable in it!
  • Skiing is expensive so take a packed lunch, snacks and water to keep you going throughout the day. Don’t worry, it’ll stay refrigerated out there!
  • Get a face mask – even when its hot and sunny, sitting on chairlifts with the wind blowing through the mountains will leave your cheeks frosty and lips chapped.
  • We shopped around for ski gear and found it was way cheaper to rent equipment in town than from up the mountain.
  • If you take your phone out to capture a shot of that beautiful alpine vista and realise that its dead – don’t panic – your battery is probably just frozen. Once you get inside the restaurant the heaters will bring it back to life.

I absolutely can’t wait to go back next year to try out Cardrona, which is just over an hour outside of Queenstown and is meant to be aces for beginners! From hating my ski lessons to falling in love with mountain life, I’ve totally caught the snow bunny bug.

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It’s hard to explain what standing atop a mountain range feels like, looking out over endless snow capped peaks. There is something otherworldly and ethereal about it, and its the best feeling to be completely removed from the distractions of modern day life.

It’s enough to instil wanderlust into any of us, to quit our 9-5’s, to leave behind our mundane routines and endless bills, and skip off into the wilderness to live off the land…

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How grateful I am to live in a country where charm and magic is ever present. So much forest and ocean to be explored and so many mountains to conquer.

After living here for a year and a half now I am slowing acclimatising to the backdrop of Kiwi life so it’s important to remind myself how lucky I am to be here. To have wild and rugged beaches on my doorstep. To be able to travel to work by boat across a postcard perfect harbour. To have views of volcanoes from the very street that I live on. It couldn’t be further removed from my life back in London.

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For now, my ski season is sadly over. But with the days getting longer and the sun stirring its way back into our lives, my mind is firmly focused on summer adventures and getting back to beach life…

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